The Myth of the Strong Leader | Archie Brown

Summary of: The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age
By: Archie Brown


In ‘The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age’, Archie Brown delves into the commonly held belief that an effective leader must be a strong, domineering figure. The book highlights crucial themes such as the role of the media in shaping public opinion, the importance of humility and expertise in leadership, the virtues of collegial leadership, and the implications of the democratic system on leaders. By debunking the myth of the strong leader, Brown showcases the importance of a well-rounded leader who listens to experts, collaborates with others, and shares responsibility in a democratic society.

The Misconception of Political Leadership

Political opinion is often shaped by certain external factors, including the media, public speeches, and lobbying. However, there seems to be a preference among the public for a certain kind of leader rather than a specific political party. This creates a risk for society as it can lead to a misconception that leadership should be about power rather than effective governance. Many politicians feed into this perception by using ‘strong vs. weak’ rhetoric to diminish their opponents. Additionally, the media often portrays the leader as the most powerful individual in a democracy, reducing attention on the inner workings of the political system. This can create a culture where individuals believe that a country’s well-being is contingent on the leader’s strength of character. While strength is important, effective leadership involves more than just power. An overemphasis on leadership as a means of power can push society towards totalitarianism. Thus, it’s important to shift the conversation towards effective governance, and away from the perception that a leader’s strength of character is more important than the strength of democratic institutions.

Traits of Great Leaders

Great leaders must possess multiple skills to succeed, including modesty and expertise in acknowledging their limitations. They should surround themselves with a diverse group of advisors that specialize in various areas relating to public life. Leaders who avoid consulting experts risk making poorly informed decisions that can harm society. Appreciating the value of expertise was one of the reasons for Margaret Thatcher’s success. Leaders need to be careful not to rely too heavily on a small group of “yes men” to avoid being overtaken by another strong personality. Tony Blair lost his ability to lead due to his conflict with Gordon Brown, who refused to comply with all of Blair’s decisions.

The Power of Collegial Leadership

Good leaders prioritize working together and sharing responsibility. This is known as collegial leadership. It is an essential trait for governments seeking to create lasting change. For example, Clement Attlee’s government established Britain’s National Health Service by appointing experienced ministers and encouraging teamwork. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson’s administration passed crucial legislation such as the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid by spending more time working with politicians instead of alone in the Oval Office. Collegial leaders earn the respect of their subordinates, and this respect is crucial for effective leadership. Overall, a collegial leadership style is well-suited to running a democratic society, which values collaboration and shared ideas.

Democratic Leaders’ Struggle for Power

Democratic leaders face numerous challenges when enacting serious change in government. Democratic systems are designed to prevent a single leader from overruling other political parties, which represent different sections of society. The most effective leaders need to collaborate and persuade other political figures in order to enact reforms. Successful democratic governments often function in coalition, aiming to create consensus among representatives with different views and backgrounds. In the United States, a complex web of checks on power makes it difficult for any single president to oversee major, transformational changes to government or policy. While democratic leaders have less domestic power than the public thinks, they still retain significant influence over foreign policy.

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